Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Sinkhole,” by Heather Altfeld

We’ve all heard of those weird sinkholes turning up in odd places, and we watch in horrible fascination the slow motion video footage of them sucking houses, livestock, and even entire towns into their great, gaping maws. Here, poet Heather Altfeld uses sinkholes and other catastrophic phenomena as a way of describing the experience of human love in the perilous era.

In the first stanza of “Sinkhole,” note how an accumulation of syntactically linked detail simulates the act and very sequence of things being sucked into the sinkhole, first, the concretely enumerated contents of one man’s house, then the man himself. I like how items catalogued increase from the trivial (aftershave, a remote control) to more substantial (“the whole bureau”) and personal (photograph of a beloved, articles of clothing), inching ever closer until it is the man himself who is lost. And I also like the way the catalog builds—syntax working rather like the natural force of cohesion that draws water molecules up a glass pipette or through the roots of plant, but here, of course, moving down instead of up.

After presentation and dramatic erasure of that first image, the poem introduces its second character, an overwrought and overburdened single mother in a grocery store line, collapsing under all she has to bear. She teeters on the edge of some great fall, perhaps into mental breakdown. The speaker notes that life (“this bright place”) has become more voracious in appetite and is “forced to swallow us whole.” The poem shifts, ominously, to fragmentary images of a sunk boat and the aftermath of an earthquake and a tsunami.

“This is how it feels so often to love and be loved / these days” is pivotal, for it tells us that all that has come before, powerful as it is, is image in service to a figure of speech called a simile. As a quick reminder, a simile is a comparison between two things linked by the words “like” or “as” (my love is like a red rose) while a metaphor makes the comparison without the linking words (my love is a rose). In Altfeld’s poem, that man-eating sinkhole, that women-sucking emotional vortex, that sunk boat, earthquake and tsunami—all are what it feels like, now, “to love and be loved.” In simile and metaphor, the thing that is being talked about (here, love) is called the “tenor” and the thing being used to describe it (here, the list of catastrophes) is called the “vehicle.” In this poem the vehicle occupies most of the lines, or as is sometimes said, the vehicle “swallows” the tenor. Hah! We can be sure that this smart, deft poet intended this effect.

But the poet does not just stop with completing the elaborate and powerful simile. After intellectually and viscerally making the point that love in modern times is a dangerous endeavor, she goes on to insist that love is a journey “we” must nevertheless make it, donning scuba equipment or whatever we need to survive. Here and through the end of the poem, speaker and reader are implicated, as the poem changes from third to second person point of view: “Now, we’ll have to strap tanks / to our backs.”

And what will we find if we do leave the safe surface of things? Maybe just the junk of history, a “forgotten automat” or “mute sandwiches.” But maybe, something else: the “thick green sound” of “a kind of music.” How remarkable that this poem, crammed with images of destruction, can end with life and its own version of an earned and cautious hope! Love is like a sinkhole that swallows us whole, Altfeld says, and she says it with no little sense of menace. And then she surprises us by concluding that we may as well just take the plunge.

 —Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Sinkhole

First the man’s aftershave, then his remote control,
the half-finished coffee curdling in the Pyrex mug,
the whole bureau everything was perched on,
with the photograph of the girlfriend he’d missed 

for ten years wrapped in tinfoil and stuck with gum
to its underside, and then the hat at the tiptop
of his coatrack, its feather sailing in the air to land
on a bit of tile that would still be left in this world,

the Charmin roll from the bathroom,
bobbling happily into neverness,
the tube socks one at a time
to be joined together in the watery hereafter, 

and finally the man himself, charmed for a millisecond
to be chosen like this, then quickened and rigid
with Vesuvian terror, inhaled and deposited
in the terrible quarry beneath us. Let’s face it, 

the earth has propped all of us so long, and so miserably,
on her table, teetering under our weight,
the familiar mother, five-thirty on a weeknight,
trapped three carts in on the worst grocery line in America,

her arms finally giving way to spill the crying child
beneath her legs, his rejected hair streaming out
against our shoes while her half gallon of milk
streams down the sticky black runway and they have to call

for an extra checker on five. It can no longer
simply eject us, this bright place, with its limestone
sagging and its shale hungry and our boats so delicious, 

it can no longer just strike itself against itself
in the great earthquakes of yesteryear,
laundering our cobbles and our shingles,
rubbling our libraries into one great papery heap, 

leaving one small hand visible and reaching from the ruins
to remind us what gravity really looks like; 

now she is forced to swallow us whole.
This is how it feels so often to love and be loved
these days; volleying about in the arms of the trying,
flailing and defenseless like impotent squid 

who will be sucked forever into the bucket of the heart,
chopped and ringed and peppered with sadness
and flash-fried exactly as we were. Now, we’ll have to strap tanks
to our backs to tunnel and learn this cave beneath us, 

the dimensions of her cavities, the precise location
of these new graves. Who knows
what forgotten automat we might find
still spinning in its hollows, its mute sandwiches 

blinking at the ugly sturgeons? Who knows what kind of music
we might learn down there, or how we will even know
how to hear it, as it laps its thick green sound against our foggy masks?

First published in Okey-Panky: A Weekly Magazine of Short Things, and reprinted with permission of the poet.

 

Altfeld_4-14-15Heather Altfeld’s first book, The Disappearing Theatre, won the inaugural Poets at Work Book Prize judged by Stephen Dunn and is forthcoming in the Fall of 2015. Her poems have appeared in Narrative Magazine, TLR, Okey-Panky, Cimarron Review, Pleiades, ZYZZYVA, Poetry Northwest, Superstition Review, Jewish Currents, and others. She recently completed a residency at the Vermont Studio Center, and is a member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. She lives, writes, and teaches in Chico, California, and is finishing a book for children. Visit www.heatheraltfeld.com.

 

 

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